The New Mature Student

By Myles Shame

Each year thousands of students around the globe who are age 50 or older return to university or attend for the first time. That’s right, 50-year olds are enjoying frosh week and even pledging to sororities and fraternities.

Are we going to see a “Legally Blonde 3, The Real Mature Student”, starring a 70-year old grey haired Reese Whitherspoon receiving her Doctorate in law, dating all the hot 50-year olds and dishing out advice on how to look 50 using a new anti-aging cream she has concocted? As the average life expectancy in the Western World rises and technology speeds ahead at a lightening pace, people are having multiple careers over their lifetime and more and more adults over 50 are heading back to the classroom.

Gary Polonsky the former President of Durham University saw thousands of mature students walk through the door, some enrolling for the first time while others simply deciding they wanted to change careers. Polonsky commented on what is becoming a trend, the really mature student. “Many mature students, people in their 50s and older, have had extensive careers and come to university with transferable experiences of planning their time, organizing people and projects, working in groups and making presentations.” Polonsky acknowledged that it’s not always going to be easy to fit in, “For some, it’s the fear of being the oldest student in the class or having concerns around coping with the demands of academic work after being out of school for many years or having never been involved at all.”

Polonsky is a strong believer that mature students will succeed. “Nearly all of the students who return to university after 50 finish near the top of the class.” He explained why, “A lifetime of wisdom, experience, and streets smarts all come into play when they return to school. They always show up the earliest and stay the latest.  They take the most detailed notes. They are serious students. They aren’t concerned with the exciting social life university potentially has to offer, living away from home for the first time, being able to legally drink and party. They are going for the right reasons and stay focused.” 

For those tackling university again Polonsky has some advice, “You need to be optimistic. You are going to be great. You may be fearful that the young whippersnappers will make you look bad. Your first experience may have been negative as people along the way might have filled you with doubt.  But don’t listen to the doubters. Don’t listen to the people who say you ‘can’t’ or ‘you’re not good enough’.  Surround yourself with positive people and you will achieve your dreams.” During his 50s while working full time, Polonsky returned to university and at age 60 received his doctorate of education from the University of Toronto.

In 2018, 50 is no longer considered old. Students these days are going to university for the first time in their 60s and some into their 70s.  Max Rykiss received his Honors BA in his late 70s after enduring a lifetime of challenges. His granddaughter Cari remembers Rykiss telling her why he wanted to attend university, “He loved learning and had always hoped to attend university but life was always interrupting his plans. He was always very interested in politics and wanted to discuss his views in a university classroom. At the time, a few of his grandchildren were going to university and he appreciated sharing his classroom experiences with his family. He was really proud of the fact he was a much older student and I think he wanted to show everyone age is irrelevant.”

Cari recalls her grandfather telling her why he was able to succeed.  “I never had any trouble asking for the resources I needed. If I didn’t get them, I’d keep asking. I didn’t let being a mature student define who I was. I never left things to the last minute because, even if I could do coursework in high school easily years ago, university assignments were more in-depth and took more time. I always kept an open mind and never had preconceptions of what I could or
couldn’t do.”

Rykiss always wanted to attend university but his dreams were interrupted by the Second World War as he was conscripted into The Royal Canadian Air Force. While serving in the air force Rykiss became a navigator. His daughter Gwen remembers him telling her war stories.  In one story he was flying over Holland in a four-engine Lancaster Bomber. “He loved dark chocolate and always took a supply with him on flying missions. To consume his treat, he temporarily removed his oxygen mask, inhaled the chocolate, and quickly replaced the mask. As a result some crumbs landed on the navigation maps. When approaching the coast, the plane descended to a lower altitude for landing. As the temperature in the plane increased, the crumbs started to melt and obliterated the landing map and instructions. The cockpit was filled with fear. Rykiss landed by recognizing the landmarks of an airfield. Amazingly they did land but, unfortunately, it was not the right airfield.”

Max always shared that story with friends and family and told them if he could navigate the landing of a fighter jet, he’d one day go back to school and receive a university degree. In June of 1993, at the age of 78, Rykiss received his honors BA from the University of Manitoba with friends and family cheering him on.  To this day he is the oldest person to ever graduate in Manitoba.